A stereotypical phrase surfaces at the end of every year! That the year belonged to no one else but women in the cinema industry. As for 2018, I would beg to differ. One of the least exciting years for female actors in terms of variety and substance, the year saw an overflow of hagiographies, action-adventures, franchise films and listless romances largely spearheaded by men. There were also instances where certain films with female protagonists didn’t work in terms of content. So be it and let’s look forward to a better 2019.
In the meantime, here goes the year’s finest lead performances by female actors, in reverse order:
10. Anushka Sharma (Sui Dhaaga – Made in India)
Who thought a heavily urbanized Anushka Sharma would transform into a rural woman whose own dreams were tied to that of her husband’s? Sharma is an entrepreneur herself and this proposition is hard to buy in absolute terms. And boy, how wonderfully she proves herself here!
Playing the domesticated yet industrious Mamta, Sharma brings in her own personal flavour to the part. At one point, I began to equate Mamta’s enthusiasm to Sharma’s own in producing gutsy feature films. Now, Mamta may not be as empowered as the actress but is, for sure, a ray of hope for women who are slowly and steadily moving out of the clutches of patriarchy in rural and small-town India.
9. Neena Gupta (Badhaai Ho)
First up, it is extremely heartening to see Neena Gupta back in films – with characters of varying screen lengths and diverse views (Mulk, Veere Di Wedding being the others). In Badhaai Ho, Gupta plays a woman experiencing geriatric pregnancy. Trapped in what is an awkward situation for middle-class Indian homes, Gupta’s Priyamvada goes through a sea of emotions. Be it with the quiet breakdown as her mother-in-law explicitly supports her or the tender moment when her son comes to terms with the scenario, the film proves why Gupta is one of the best female actors we have.
Giving due credit to the writer, it is particularly heartening to see how Priyamvada is not much of a talker when it comes to the film’s central crisis. The film talks on her behalf and she merely reacts! How beautiful is that!
8. Taapsee Pannu (Manmarziyaan)
Confused protagonists with polarizing traits are forever fascinating. Anurag Kashyap’s Manmarziyaan gives Taapsee Pannu a fine opportunity to showcase her ability to breath life into one such character. Given the overt Punjabi-ness to her Rumi, one might assume that it might be an easy nail for Taapsee but it isn’t. You do not know, for a fact, that in which direction her mind will proceed next. Precisely, it takes quite some skills to convince us of a character that might sound excessively convoluted on papers.
7. Sanya Malhotra and Radhika Madan (Pataakha)
Vishal Bhardwaj designs the smashing sibling duo Genda and Champa in his zany black comedy Pataakha set somewhere in Rajasthan. One can’t really differentiate on who is the better performer here as they share the same amount of screen-time, have exactly the same character graphs and their endless hate for each other is what binds the film together.
Pataakha gets predominantly spicy towards the last reel where the women and their detest hit the roof. And I am glad that Bhardwaj maintained the comedic tone of the film throughout, giving us less reasons to ponder on why the women hate each other so much!
6. Alia Bhatt (Raazi)
It is not very often that a mainstream female actor of today stumbles upon a screenplay like Meghna Gulzar’s Raazi. The story of a female spy who works for India from her in-laws’ home in Pakistan was essentially patriotism done right in days of blaring jingoism. Nationalism aside, there are other emotions that the young Sehmat (Bhatt) goes through – be it her obligation to her parent, her puzzling state of falling in love with her kind husband and her reverence to the loving in-laws or the country (Pakistan) that is extremely welcoming despite her Indian citizen stature. And one must say how the actor is convincing throughout despite few jittery bits here and there.
5. Mrunal Thakur (Love Sonia)
Directed by Tabrez Noorani, Love Sonia is a difficult film – to make as well as to endure as a viewer. Mrunal Thakur’s Sonia sees a massive metamorphosis from days of innocence spent with a smitten classmate to becoming an escort in the United States. Her transformation is not merely from a modest school uniform to exotic evening gowns. Thakur makes sure that we connect to her emotionally as we witness the torment that she undergoes all through.
The actor who maintains her fragility as she brings to life some of the most complex emotions of Sonia also makes sure that the film is a quiet announcement of her arrival in the industry. Oh yes, this is a debut performance!
4. Anushka Sharma (Pari)
How often do a Bollywood actress get to play a ghost? Not a halo-sporting enigma but one that is out there, scaring the hell out of you. Anushka Sharma as Rukhsana might not be a part of the most perfect horror film in Hindi but given Bollywood’s alarmingly low standards for this specific genre (and its variants), the actress is an absolute revelation in it.
There are moments where she is simply present on the screen minus heavy-duty acting that one might expect from a quintessential ‘desi’ demon. With that very presence and even through minor twitches in her eyebrows, Sharma sets a standard, quietly and effectively. Pari is, most certainly, a film and performance that needs to be discussed more – for the greater good of the horror genre in India and also as a token of appreciation for women who do not care to maintain a definite screen image.
3. Rani Mukerji (Hichki)
Hindi film industry loves its disabled characters. Even as they attempt to metaphorize it, the film, after all, is called Hichki which translates to ‘hiccup’ in English. Naina Mathur played by Rani Mukerji suffers unending ‘hiccups’ in layman terms. She has Tourette’s Syndrome. Now, given Hindi cinema’s penchant for such unheard-of ailments, it is common to glamourize it a little and milk all sympathies. Well, Mukerji had different plans.
Forming the brightest element in the film, she renders the neurological condition of hers as one that is merely incidental. Naina ticks throughout the film but barely 20 minutes into it, our sympathies pave way to the larger battles that she fights. The character is also gender-neutral if one must note and Mukerji’s well-measured act (also one of her career-best) makes sure that we applaud the woman, who is totally in charge of her personal and professional lives with no man dictating terms to her.
2. Taapsee Pannu (Mulk)
Anubav Sinha’s Mulk is one film that is unabashedly melodramatic. It isn’t a despicable term because in cinema we have witnessed umpteen films and performances that have successfully moved us by getting this formula right. So, throughout the film, we watch Taapsee Pannu’s Aarti in a tense state of mind. She is battling a personal issue and then there are her affectionate in-laws who suddenly end up in a legal mess.
Given the kind of film that it is, we wait for that penny drop moment where the actor breaks all her mounting turmoils and erupts into a full-blown Bollywood monologue! And she so does it in great style. Pannu’s climactic act in the courtroom is not only her personal best but also a neat benchmark for actors attempting emotional outbursts in a court of law. She makes sure that we shed a tear or two as we clap (silently or otherwise) as she closes the film with that fantastic speech of hers!
1. Tabu (Andhadhun)
So, Tabu has played a femme fatale before. More than once, that is. What merits her the top spot on this list is the fact that her temptress act in Andhadhun bears no resemblance to that in Haider. The version in Maqbool has another flavour to it. I am not denying that these are characters are penned for different story frameworks. Yet, you sense how an actor approaches similar briefs. Be it in their speech or pronounced mannerisms, actors tend to sort of reuse some of their tried-and-tested material. After all, the central motive is the same. Tabu, who plays the scheming Simi is brutal, but also with an intriguing ambiguous side.
You never quite know the woman that Simi is. Tabu’s incandescent eyes and controlled expressions do not let you – even if you badly want them to cheat. Talk about masterful acting, I say!
Down the years…